JOHANNESBURG - Fixing a dismal pitch in Nelspruit and boosting attendance numbers are top priorities for organisers of the African Nations Cup in South Africa as the tournament enters the knock-out stages, officials said on Friday.
Players and coaches have been outraged at the state of the sand-covered pitch at the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, which looks more suited to beach volleyball than international football.
Organisers were forced to spread sand over the turf to contain algae, which emerged after unusually heavy rains soaked the pitch and began eating the grass, said Mvuzo Mbebe, head of the local organising committee.
He said turf experts were attending to the weather-battered pitch, treating it with chemicals to kill the algae and applying fertilisers to get the grass growing, while the sand had been removed.
"We hope there will be gradual improvement for the quarter final and hopefully for the semi-final too," he told journalists at a briefing in Johannesburg.
"What is clear is that the improvement will not be to the extent that the pitch will go to its normal state. We don't have that time left," he said, adding that training at the pitch was cancelled to get the grass growing.
Despite the pitch not being at its best, Hicham El Amrani, general secretary of the Confederation of African Football, dismissed suggestions that the semi-final, due to take place at Nelspruit on Wednesday, would be moved.
"Plan A, B, and C is to play at Mbombela and improve the pitch," he said. "Nobody expected this, nobody wanted it, but it's here, so we are working on this. There is no point whining about this. It's a top priority for us."
Organisers are also attempting to improve attendance during the remaining matches of the tournament.
So far numbers, except for games featuring hosts South Africa, have been low, with rows of empty seats in stadiums throughout the group matches.
El Amrani said there were some problems with distribution of tickets and fans holding tickets choosing not to attend, be it due to lack of interest or poor weather conditions.
He said some 711,649 tickets have gone out to the market, out of which 433,053 had been sold, while 278,596 were given out as complimentary tickets.
"We are still working with the local organising committee, engaging with radios, broadcasters (to improve attendance). This is a priority as much as the pitch in Mbombela," he said.
He added that some 6,000 tickets were left for the final and 19,000 and 24,000 seats for the first semi-final in Durban and the second one in Nelspruit, respectively.
"Hence the need to work very hard, although we understand that some spectators don't want to commit before they know who is going to play," he said.
El Amrani defended some of the disputed decisions taken by referees during the tournament.
"Obviously mistakes have been made like they are always made. We are all human beings," he said.
"We understand some frustration from some fans or federation who believe that refereeing has not been up to par. We will select the best of them for the remainder of the tournament.
"We cannot go backward. There were 24 matches and in the vast majority the refereeing was good." (Editing by Mark Gleeson in Durban and Pritha Sarkar)